Deeply transphobic ad in ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ represents everything wrong with cyberpunk

The cyberpunk dystopia is here. No, not the one we’re living in. CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077 is coming to PC and consoles early next year. But just like our own, Cyberpunk’s dystopia has a transphobia problem.

Nvidia on Tuesday published an E3 2019 news post about its partnership with Cyberpunk 2077’s developer, CD Projekt Red. The two companies are working together to implement the game’s real-time ray tracing graphical enhancements. Nvidia shared two exclusive 4K screenshots demonstrating the feature, and one of the two images features an in-game ad for a product named “ChroManticore.”

The “ChroMantic0re” ad shows a feminine presenting person drinking a fictional product called ChroManticore, with the phrases “MIX IT UP” and “16 flavours you’d love to mix” surrounding their bottom half. The puns don’t necessarily make sense at first. But then you look down at the model’s crotch where they have an enormous erection in their leotard. Nothing is left to the imagination in the photo. It’s extremely sexually explicit.

Cyberpunk 2077 ChroManticure CD Projekt

Twitter user @neondreamgirl immediately drew attention to the screenshot and its transphobic messages. Her tweet went viral in just a few hours, with over 500 retweets and 2,000 likes as of Wednesday afternoon. When reached for comment, Nvidia declined to comment and instead directed the Daily Dot to contact CD Projekt Red for any questions about the game. (CD Projekt Red did not immediately respond to the Daily Dot’s requests for comment.)

It’s unclear whether the person shown in the ad is a trans woman, is a cisgender woman who drank ChroManticore to obtain a penis, or identifies as nonbinary. When a Polygon writer met with Kasia Redesiuk, the art director behind Cyberpunk 2077’s in-fiction media, she argued the trans model’s body is used by the game’s megacorporations to sell products.

“Personally, for me, this person is sexy,” Redesiuk told Polygon. “I like how this person looks. However, this model is used—their beautiful body is used—for corporate reasons. They are displayed there just as a thing, and that’s the terrible part of it.”

Redesiuk also told Polygon that Cyberpunk 2077’s world features gender non-conforming people who expose their bodies in public and that corporations use their bodies in advertisements and sell to them because of their purchasing power. This, senior reporter Charlie Hall writes, can be seen in the ad, which is designed as a “play on the same sort of hypersexualized advertising that modern companies use to sell products today.” Redesiuk also claims the ad was purposefully designed to feel uncomfortably aggressive because of the game’s megacorporations trying to “influence people’s lives” through objectified, oversexualized bodies.

“They shove products down their throats. They create those very aggressive advertisements that use, and abuse, a lot of people’s needs and instincts. So, hypersexualization is apparent everywhere, and in our ads there are many examples of hypersexualized women, hypersexualized men, and hypersexualized people in between,” Redesiuk explains. “This is all to show that [much like in our modern world], hypersexualization in advertisements is just terrible.”

As of yet, it remains unclear if Cyberpunk 2077 has any trans or gender non-conforming characters.

Redesiuk claims “it was never the intention to offend anyone” with the ad and that the image was designed “to show how oversexualization of people is bad.” But while in-game lore may tell one story, real world context tells another. The ad feels heavy-handed at best, and it relies too much on the shock of an unexpected, enormous erection to get its point across. In other words, the ad isn’t jarring because of its capitalist ideals. It’s because of its trans model’s penis.

A closer look at the ad proves this to be the case. The ChroManticore blurbs are all positioned in a way that surround the model’s erect penis, enough for the player to miss on first glance until they finally do recognize the erection. Then it’s impossible to ignore. It also fetishizes the owner’s genitals without immediately offering any satire that reflects Redesiuk’s values. So for players who read the model as a trans woman, it’s as if she’s visibly thrusting one of her most stigmatized body parts onto others, like she wants the viewer to recognize her penis in its entire length and girth. It makes the model, not the society they live in, seem predatory.

Even if the ad is supposed to depict a trans woman or a trans femme in good faith, it’s terribly inaccurate in a way that furthers harmful stereotypes already existing in our society. Many trans women cannot maintain erections thanks to hormone replacement therapy, while others can only become somewhat stiff for a short period of time without erectile dysfunction medication. Yet cis people generally assume trans women’s penises operate like cis men’s until proven otherwise. That stigma is only further reinforced by cis male-centric porn, which expects trans models to use their penises in a way that operates exactly like cis men’s dicks.

In other words, the ad reflects cisgender peoples’ current conceptions of trans bodies, so for most cis players, the satire doesn’t land. And it calls into question whether CD Projekt Red ever intended the ad to be satirical in the first place. Right-wing gamers clearly didn’t think so. Over on 4chan’s /pol/, one user posted the ad and proudly declared Cyberpunk 2077 “/ourgame/,” implying the title’s politics align with the site’s far-right beliefs. And on Gamergate subreddit r/KotakuInAction, users praised the joke and belittled its critics.

“Hats off to CD project [sic] as they don’t tend to give in to the crazies,” another poster said. “They know it won’t affect their sales.”

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At first blush, it’s hard to tell whether CD Projekt Red’s ChroManticore joke really was intended to be a dog whistle. But that seems increasingly likely as previews of the E3 2019 Cyberpunk 2077 demo come out. Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Matt Cox felt “increasingly uncomfortable” after playing through the demo mission, which has players endlessly shoot “predominantly Black people labelled as animals.” (The enemies’ faction is called the “Animals.”) Another scene features the player character seemingly making fun of the stereotypical, Haitian “Voodoo Boys” crime organization’s accents. The demo ends with a white man in a business suit correctly warning the player that the Voodoo Boys will turn on them; it reads as a white upper-class man helping the player deal with violent Black criminals.

Combined with CD Projekt’s history with transphobic and questionable humor, it’s hard to see the ChroManticore ad in an affirming light, even with Redesiuk’s explanation.

CD Projekt first came under fire last year after Sean Halliday, the company’s former community manager for its online GOG storefront, shared a promotional post about games journalists committing suicide. The tweet, which used a screenshot from Gamergate-aligned developer Run With Scissors’ Postal 2: Paradise Lost, referenced a series of articles bemoaned by Gamergate members for criticizing the gamer identity. Then, in August 2018, Cyberpunk 2077’s official Twitter account shared a transphobic joke about misgendering. The company followed with a half-hearted apology toward “all those offended,” stating that “harming anyone was never our intention.”

Halliday wasn’t responsible for the Cyberpunk 2077 joke. However, anger against CD Projekt was bubbling, and it exploded with his #WontBeErased tweet. The post trivialized a hashtag protesting a leaked Trump administration memo that would erase trans people from federal anti-discrimination policies. Halliday was fired after subsequent backlash.

At first, CD Projekt’s track record was troubling, but firing Halliday seemed to be a step in the right direction. But any good faith CD Projekt obtained since Halliday was let go has been squandered. Between transphobia across both GOG and CD Projekt Red, as well as the company’s various non-apologies for its troubling social media presence, the games industry is done giving CD Projekt second chances.

Transgender games journalist Astrid Johnson has written for Eurogamer, Polygon, Rock, Paper Shotgun, and VG247, among other outlets. She believes Redesiuk had good intentions, but that her comments “really further highlight just how clueless those at CD Projekt Red are about trans bodies and what constitutes good trans representation.”

“It’s difficult. Because, at first glance, you’d likely praise the nuance of portraying a futuristic world where queer identity is accepted but exploited by corporations in advertisements. Because that’s something that no doubt would happen,” Johnson told the Daily Dot over Twitter DM. “But this is the first trans character we’ve seen in Cyberpunk 2077. And it’s a fetishization.”

Johnson suggests there’s serious cognitive dissonance between the game’s stated intentions and its actual features. Cyberpunk 2077 seemingly has commentary on capitalism manipulating trans and nonbinary people, yet the game also forces the player to stick to the gender binary in its character creator. She ultimately believes CD Projekt Red is “using queer identity as set dressing” to “appease a progressive audience and as the subject of mockery for its more socially conservative audiences.”

“Redesiuk talks in such a way as it feels like she rarely interacts with trans people, if at all,” Johnson explained. “I think she genuinely does want to make an earnest and genuine portrayal of representation in Cyberpunk. She clearly needs to talk to us more and understand us better before trying to act on that, but I think she wants to do good. That desire to do something good for trans people doesn’t seem to be shared with the rest of the studio, though.”

The problem here isn’t the trans body. It’s how the game depicts that body, frames it for cis players’ amusement, and does so at trans peoples’ expense. In Johnson’s case, CD Projekt’s past behavior weighed heavily on her initial interpretation of the joke, and she called it a “continuation of CD Projekt Red’s tone-deaf disregard for trans people.” For players who miss Redesiuk’s commentary, it’s likely they’d walk away with the same first impression she did.

“Ultimately, the lesson here is that in order for trans representation to be done right, trans people need to be involved in the decision-making process,” she explained. “It’s pretty apparent that CD Projekt Red hasn’t consulted trans people when making these decisions, and in a genre that has evolved to where it is today—rich with queer culture—that’s a deeply disappointing oversight.”

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These criticisms don’t come from malice. Johnson hopes speaking up and discussing the in-game ad’s problems “might ultimately make the game, and games that follow it, better.” That’s badly needed throughout the entire cyberpunk genre.

As the Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw wrote last July, cyberpunk’s mainstream creators struggle with “nuanced depictions of trans identity” because they’re more interested in “telling formulaic stories from conservative viewpoints.” In her piece, she calls for radical inclusion in the genre by centering the punky, DIY trans creators working in the indie world. And for his August 2018 essay “Hood Cyberpunk,” Unwinnable games critic Yussef Cole pointed out how privileged white writers tend to “build their visions of the future by imaginatively slumming in the present” so they can “live out their fantasies of unrestrained frontierism” without pushing for any real change.

“Someone who has actually suffered deprivation, who has experienced oppression under existing social systems, might want to see a model of cyberpunk that does incorporate political struggle and organized mass movements,” Cole writes. “A fictional future built from Hood Cyberpunk tenets might hopefully provide energy with which to confront and even challenge the oppressive reality that we’re currently used to, that we expect to go on forever, unchanged.”

But it’s unlikely that Cyberpunk 2077 will bring about the change Cole or Baker-Whitelaw want, because its own creator seems happy with capitalism as it stands today. CD Projekt is known for its highly critical Glassdoor reviews complaining about “insane” crunch that leads to “hemorrhoids, bad back, and depression.” Its internal culture is so bad, as one reviewer alleges, that it’s best considered a “culture of blame” in an “extremely politicized work environment” where who you know, not what you do, is the most important factor to career advancement.

So before CD Projekt starts playing with gender in hamfisted ways, perhaps the company should look to itself, and question whether it’s perpetuating the very same capitalist dystopian fantasy Cyberpunk 2077 is, on the surface, trying to critique.

Correction: A previous version of the article stated the product’s name is “ChroManticure” instead of “ChroManticore.” The article has been updated to reflect the product’s correct name. Upon learning of the product’s correct name, it’s worth noting that “Manticore” is worth further scrutiny, given that the name is implying the model’s trans body is a mix of a human head and various animal body parts.

Update 11:59pm CT, June 13When reached for comment, CD Projekt Red directed the Daily Dot to the Polygon coverage and declined to comment further.

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Ana Valens

Ana Valens

Ana Valens is a reporter specializing in online queer communities, marginalized identities, and adult content creation. She is Daily Dot's Trans/Sex columnist. Her work has appeared at Vice, Vox, Truthout, Bitch Media, Kill Screen, Rolling Stone, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends her free time developing queer adult games.